session 2: the turn towards things


Brown, Bill. 2001. Thing theory.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. Introduction: commodities and the politics of value.

Henare, Amiria et al. 2007. Introduction: thinking through things.

Olsen, Bjornar. 2003. Material culture after text: re-membering things.


One Response to “session 2: the turn towards things”

  1. thingtheory Says:

    comments copied from the other blog:

    brook said…

    Bill Brown’s introduction to the “Things” issue of “Critical Inquiry” (2001) suffuses a renewed sense of theoretical possibility with various shades of pathos. What is lost and what is won in this “turn toward things”? Within the first three pages of his essay, Brown concisely replays the role of the thing in the literary imaginary of the 20th century. Byatt’s “real, very dirty window” is just one thing among many, in which writers found a last material refuge yet to be colonized by ideas, theories, and words. Something solid and comforting, apart from the unstable networks of signification. In a century that began with a crisis of poetic language, the word “thing” as placeholder (as Brown argues) marks not only a void of applicable language but a privileged site of latent, operational potential (p. 4). For the anthropologist too, the turn toward materiality and things involves a linguistic struggle: the inadequacies of inherited theoretical languages and the search for possible languages in which the things might speak for themselves (Henare, et al., pp. 1–5).

    But if things are the privileged sites of resistance––against the old dualities of subject and object, against the reduction “other worlds” to different “world views”––why entangle them in a new theoretical framework at all?

    For at the same time things are growing in importance, they are also disappearing––whether it is the vanishing solids of modernity in the first half of the century or the rapid “digitization of our world” in the present and future (Brown, pp. 10 and 16). This is what connects Brown’s 1990s to the 1920s of Kracauer, Benjamin, and the historical avant-garde.

    The “belatedness of things,” as Brown describes it, accounts for the simultaneous senses of loss and possibility in this critical turn toward things. The things we imagine we are loosing––to ideas, theories, and words––are not pre-existent but come to us as symptoms of cultural and theoretical trends (p. 16). The importance of a theory of things is that it substantiates the belated presence of things, lends them specificity, uniqueness, and a material resistance to theories based on reductive interpretive schema. Things are thought into being: conceived not perceived (Henare, et al., pp. 14–15). This is the productive, heuristic aspect of thing theory.

    It’s also interesting to note that three out of four of our readings for this week are introductions to collections of articles––suggesting, perhaps, that a theory of things is incomplete without a number of methodological demonstrations. Should we consider it a strength or a weakness that, “thinking through things can only be understood as a methodological project as opposed to a theory in its own right”? (Henare, et al., p. 23)

    January 27, 2009 10:33 AM

    Gina said…

    (i’m afraid i’ll be taking the “few inital thoughts” prompt a little more seriously). in this introduction to thing theory’s basic principles, thing theory is portrayed as a necessary, even inevitable, turn away from social constructivism and the realm of the excessively textual/conceptual and a turn towards the subjects’ other, improverished and neglected. i was particularly struck by the question of “why things were forgotten”: perhaps our difficulty in articulating “why” stems from the problem of discerning what it is exactly that’s left to remember. how do we begin to conceive of what things ever were to us “before”? and yet the type of materialism that is being proposed here is not really an attempt to recover what has been lost, but is itself a particular product of modernity, requiring yet another set of conceptual tools to adequately consider the “something” that has been with us all along.

    on an unrelated/related note, over the weekend i took my two-year old to see “cosmic collisions” at the planetarium at the amnh: (after the fact, i cannot say i recommend doing this for toddlers in general…). it’s short and overpriced, but the experience was particularly powerful in the context of the overall themes of this class. the moment you find yourself watching a visual (p)re-enactment of how astrophysicists predict our very own milky way galaxy will merge with andromeda 60 million years from now, you begin to wonder whose field is actually dealing with the more abstract reality…

    January 27, 2009 12:07 PM

    troyth said…

    When Appadurai says that, “In a word, exchange is not a by-product of the mutual valuation of objects, but its source,” is he saying something akin to Frederic Jameson’s idea of second order abstraction in finance capital? A level of abstraction that goes beyond the abstration of money itself as the inert leveling mediator between commodities? The idea that valuation is entirely untethered from any perceived use-value, that commodities can be considered floating signifiers, is a particularly late capitalist understanding, no? Further, if we are concerned here with things, and the thing that Appadurai invokes is money, couldn’t we also be talking about credit as the thing? Credit, being entirely based on speculation to derive its value, further, on trust — Simmel’s idea of distance, here, as inverse to value, is at the heart of credit, in that we must have a proximate distance to someone/thing to trust them, and trust is the basis of valuation in credit — is, thus, from a “methodological point of view”, the very thing-in-motion that illuminates our social and human context, as evidenced in our current state of financial crisis which is a crisis of credit.

    Of course, this was written in 1986, and thus not familiar with the type of banking and crediting system we have today, however, Appadurai does take the temporal into account, invoking Bourdieu’s argument for linking gift economies with money economies, and debasing the claim that gifts do not have any past or future value by way of objectivism and rational calculation. Further, he claims, “the econonmic object does not have an absolute value as a result of the demand for it, but the demand, as the basis of a REAL or IMAGINED exchange, endows the object with value.” Thus, as an economic object, can credit be considered a thing? And, if so, what can be said of a thing that is abstracted to the second order, a thing for which there no longer exists any referent (or, use-value), a thing which is tethered to speculation? Could this double abstraction bring it back to the social — away from the purely abstract mediative “quality” of money, the epitome of empty form — back to the subjective speculation of other people, or, is it dominated by a form of “objective probability”, a term which was thought to be an oxymoron before the mid-19th century, and is still fraught with contradiction?

    January 27, 2009 12:42 PM

    Savannah said…

    Bjornar Olsen is the only author we have read for this week that focuses on the potential value of thing theory solely in the field of archaeology. Olsen notes that the most recent trend in archaeology has been to understand things as windows to cultures and societies of people who have lived before us; therefore, Olsen takes on the role of actively defending the “subalterned” thing from further silencing (Olsen 100).

    Since things, then, are used to reveal something else, archaeologists ignore the very “thingness” of things, marginalizing them to the realm of inanimate objects whose sole existence. In discussing the possible reasons why things have taken on a secondary position in the study of culture, Olsen states that “matter becomes nothing but a thin transparent film situated between us and culture” (Olsen 94). Like the other authors we have read, he assumes that the “neglect” of things is associated with modernity. While I understand that modernity in Latour’s configuration divides humans and non-humans (Olsen 95), I find it interesting that Americans as a cultural group – if I may generalize in such a gross manner – are more tied to things now than ever before. Things give us a status allotted only by material wealth. We grow incredibly attached to and dependent upon things – I think about myself with my computer or my cell phone. We, as Baudrillard theorizes, collect not things, but ourselves. How would our current obsession with things affect future archaeological studies?

    Olsen also introduces the specific concept of landscape into the conversation. By considering landscape as a thing we see that they too have been cornered into a passive position since, as Ashmore and Knapp write, “’landscape is an entity that exists by virtue of its being perceived, experienced, and contextualized’” (Olsen 91). Landscapes, like other things, should be given agency as they actively affect the lives of humans. This may be going on a tangent, but could the “cultural ecology” movement led by anthropologists like Julian Steward and Leslie White be seen as an initial move towards recognizing inanimate things as having agency? While this movement continued to view anthropology from a human-focused viewpoint, participants began to acknowledge the role that the landscape has on determining the social and economic structure of a population.

    January 27, 2009 2:37 PM

    Fran said…

    The Olsen article especially urges readers to return to things and away from theory, a concept we touched upon in class last week. Olsen argues that “things are primarily studied for methodological and epistemological reasons, to reveal the extra-material cultural processes that produced them” (90), but that objects are mirrors of ourselves and act in a web with humans. I liked the example of the lonely explorer who had many supporting actors- his equipment. I think I’m ready to answer Olsen’s call to return back to things, but I would like a little more guidance on the fine line between studying material culture as part of a method or theory, and studying the actual materiality. Appadurai’s overview of the flow (rise and fall of) commodities, was a good reminder of how politics creates desire and demand, and yet the objects are still acting upon us as we act upon them. It would be interesting for me to have Olsen critique Appadurai even further.

    January 27, 2009 2:46 PM

    Laura Murray said…

    Arjun Appadurai’s analysis of the technical knowledge of production of commodities in relation to the “complex relationship between authenticity, taste, and politics of consumer-producer” (47) reminded of a recent conversation I had in Brazil while doing pre-dissertation research about a clothing line (called Daspu) produced by a sex worker organization. As Appadurai argues in the text, the knowledge of production is embedded in sociological assumptions and very much tied to the gender, class, and race of those who produce and those who consume. The clothing line is an attempt to make a political statement regarding sex worker rights to work and reduce stigma and discrimination towards the profession and therefore what Appadurai would likely term a luxury good in that it responds to a fundamentally political necessity.

    When I tell people about Daspu, they generally ask the somewhat obvious question if the sex workers themselves sew the clothing. I reflected on this when reading Appadurai’s piece in the sense that this question may be tied to the assumption that the knowledge of production of clothing (i.e. sewing), like the sale of pleasure, is associated with low-skilled, and primarily female labor. Additionally, the social value of the clothing could arguably be increased if people felt that by buying it, they were contributing to a social good by helping sex workers find alternative employment. I think that the witty response of the head of Daspu to a journalist who asked the sex workers themselves sewed the clothing is a good illustration of the “regimes of values” which govern Daspu’s production and exchange. When asked, she simply answered dryly: “Do you [journalists] print the newspapers?”

    January 27, 2009 3:12 PM

    Alina said…

    What is the relationship between words and things? I traced this question through a few of this week’s texts:

    Olsen in his text points out the differences between things and text: “that material culture is in the world and plays a fundamentally different constitutive role for our being in this world than texts and language. Things do far more than just speak and express meanings.” (pg. 90) He finds that they are often silent or silenced. How might we go about negotiating the apparent necessity of language/text? Even if things speak and act, it is us who end up recording, processing and debating their performance.

    Brown says that history is the currency that things trade in (pg. 13). This then implicates historiography and for me the question: How do we record things? We do this through language/words which posit theories and ideas, which are then turned back into words. Language influences thoughts and things. Brown cites the surrealists as battling the idea that words and things are archrivals. But were they successful or engaging in a passing utopian project?

    Henare at al proposes the methodology of ‘thinking through things’ where the things themselves dictate a plurality of ontologies/ a multiplicity of theories. (pg. 11) Each world, each thing, illuminates something. They stress the importance of being receptive to these ‘other’ worlds and availing oneself to the a-visible. The things themselves dictate, but how are we to record something outside of our framework/our world? Is it possible to represent things, or should we just let them present themselves? Isn’t writing a form of representation – a flattening out where it becomes easy to miss the differences in the textures of things that vary in place and time?

    January 27, 2009 4:05 PM

    Sydney Beveridge said…

    This week’s readings presented various characterizations of “things,” and I was particularly intrigued by the references to a thing’s ability to speak.

    For instance, the Appadurai chapter regarded things as “mute” (p.4)–unable to speak. The Henare chapter described things as “silent” (p. 9)–choosing not to speak (having volition). Meanwhile, the Olsen article described things as “silenced” (p. 100)–actively prevented from speaking.

    This spectrum of speech and silence positioned “things” differently in each article, revealing the authors’ views on things along the way. It also had the effect of anthropomorphizing them in each instance, perhaps in an effort to elevate them closer to humans.

    Also, the Henare chapter’s discussion of grounding the meaning of “things” within them (rather than relying on interpretations) seemed like a creative way to transcend the relativism/universalism debate about the culture concept (p.4).

    January 27, 2009 5:39 PM

    sev fowles said…

    This from Soo-Young:

    the eagerness of objects to
    be what we are afriad to do

    cannot help but move us …*
    [complete poem below]

    Frank O’Hara’s lines, quoted by Brown, offer their own articulation of the project, emerging in these readings, of disrupting modes of ontological understanding. The juxtaposition of “to be” and “to do” sounds just awkward enough to propose to us that we consider why. It’s our attachment to a
    singular sense of being, a being that just doesn’t sound right when put in parallel with anything else but being. Perhaps, the lines offer, we’d have
    less difficulty taking seriously the ontology of things if we were less insistent that their ‘being’ fit precisely within the framework of ours. This is a lot to ask (see O’Hara’s final line — we so much cling to what we know), to ask that we train in ourselves a capacity to recognize a being for things that hardly resembles a being for humans. And this recognition is made all the more difficult by the possibility that this being for things does not necessarily present itself as something radically unfamiliar, in which case we would at least recognize that it deserves our attention. Instead, the radical ontology of things — radical in the sense that upon its recognition suddenly what we took as being is now restricted to being for certain types (humans) — might look a lot like something else we have a name for, something decidedly not being, and thus be classified as such without a moment of deliberation.

    There is a conversation on anthropological methodology among these readings that I want to stay with. The turn towards things as an opportunity for reconceptualizing methodology — in particular, for recognizing and working
    through certain conceptual dualisms constitutive of methodological frameworks, e.g. thing/concept, subject/object, reality/representation. Perhaps it is the tendency of things “to index a certain limit or
    liminality, to hover over the threshold” (Brown 4-5) that makes things so productive in this work. One dualism that is not explicitly problematized,
    but to which these readings very much speak, insofar as there is a significant difference in the degree to which they engage in it, has to do
    with a distinction between theory and methodology. Appadurai bases his reconceptualization of things precisely on an employment of this distinction: “Even though from a *theoretical* point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a *methodological* point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context” (Appadurai 5). So this reconceptualization of things is conceived of as a strictly methodological (or at least methodological to the extent that is it *not* theoretical) reconceptualization. As theory and method are held apart, there is no expectation that a change in one would be productive of a change in the other, so as much as this methodological fetishism wants to “follow the things themselves” (5), what comes of this procedure is ultimately referred back to a largely untouched theoretical framework in which things still “have no meanings apart from those that human transactions, attributions, and motivations endow them with” (5). In spite of an invigorated attention to things, what we talk about when we talk about things is still only their meanings.

    And this is the recognition that prompts Henare et al. to aim “to take ‘things’ encountered in the field as they present themselves, rather than immediately assuming that they signify, represent, or stand for something else” (Henare et al. 2). They write for a relationship between theory and
    methodology in which the former emerges from the latter vis-a-vis things (5). I found this to be a really exciting piece (a narrative for anthropology post-1986!), though there are ways in which I think in its
    ambition it aims too much for neatness. The distinction between thing-as-analytic and thing-as-heuristic is incredibly productive, and maybe
    the neatness of the distinction is necessary for enacting preliminary conceptual moves, but an appreciation of this distinction can also ask what
    we can do to it — that is, how, having distinguished analytic and heuristic, do we recognize their potential for cooperation within a single methodological frame? And how, beginning from this idealized vision of the ethnographic encounter, in which a thing presents itself as a heuristic engagement (e.g., “powder is power”), does the ethnographer go about participating in a far messier encounter with a proliferation of potential heuristic engagements at any given moment?

    Frank O’Hara
    Interior (with Jane)

    The eagerness of objects to
    be what we are afraid to do

    cannot help but move us Is
    this willingness to be a motive

    in us what we reject? The
    really stupid things, I mean

    a can of coffee, a 35 cent ear
    ring, a handful of hair, what

    do these things do to us? We
    come into the room, the windows

    are empty, the sun is weak
    and slippery on the ice And a

    sob comes, simply because it is
    coldest of the things we know

    January 27, 2009 6:26 PM

    Dianne said…

    One thing that struck me in both the Brown and Olsen readings was the idea of making and constructing things. Brown writes about how the surrealists created things to make reality out of a dream. “By transforming the bricolage of the dreamwork into the practice of everyday life, the surrealists registered their refusal to occupy the world as it was,” (Brown 11). These artists were creating and changing their world through the creation of objects. I think it is in this state, the process of creation, where the subject/object divide is the most fluid and perhaps completely obsolete. Were does the creator end and the creation begin? We, as humans, create our world, are constantly negotiating with it, adapting and changing it, and we do it all with things: creation and destruction. The act of creating a thing brings life to an idea, something only previously intimate with one person. Brown points out how things come after ideas (16) as much as scholars would like to believe otherwise. Ideas may spring from interaction with things, but these ideas always spawn new things, or new utilizations of pre-existing things.

    January 27, 2009 7:02 PM
    sarah said…

    Hey everyone – can’t seem to figure out how to send the discussion to everyone via email, so I am going to post them hear. I sent them to Sev also, so hopefully he’ll forward them to everyone soon!

    Here goes … (Easton and Alina and I are the group discussing tomorrow)

    In the introduction to “Thinking through things,” Henare et al. state, “The advantage of ‘things’ as a term is that, unlike ‘objects’, ‘artefacts’, and ‘materiality’, they carry minimal theoretical baggage” (5). After also reading the pieces by Appadurai, Brown and Olsen, what do you think of this statement? How does this fit in with Brown’s discussion of the specific unspecificity of things or his discussion of things as encounters and ideas as projections? What about the concept of things as items that interrupt our regular consciousness of objects? The term ‘thing’ seems to have an increasingly complicated definition. How would you define the term ‘thing’? How is it different from ‘object’?

    Henare et al draw a distinction between thinking like others and ‘thinking through things’. They believe that our own concepts are inadequate (16). Is this new methodology of ‘thinking through things’ being suggested as a way by which the ethnographer-analyst/informant divide can be bridged? (20) Do you think this is a tangible possibility? Is this not just another form of using things for our own purposes and privileging our own representations?

    All of these articles discuss at different lengths the traditional hierarchy of subject over object. Why do you think this hierarchy has been able to exist for so long and what are the contributing factors to its continued existence? Should objects be considered at the same level with subjects? Think of the last example in Olsen’s essay of the South Pole survivor whose accompanying objects (skis, freeze-dried food, etc) were not given credit in his survival and only he received
    the honor. Will objects ever be given the same amount of attributions as humans? Are there any fetishistic undertones to this proposal? How do they different readings propose we go about doing this? What are the aspects of actor/network, thinking through things, or methodological fetishism?

    Brown asks, “How does the effort to rethink things become an effort to re-institute society?” (9) Later he admits, “But what decade of the century didn’t have its own thing about things?” (13) So in the midst of our constant rethinking, is society being re-instituted by things, or are things being re-instituted by society? Is it even worth adding another distinction to the already growing list: subject/object, object/thing, animate/inanimate, experience/analysis, ethnographer/informant, etc.)

    Appadurai writes in his introduction to The Social Life of Things, “Let us start with the idea that a commodity is any thing intended for exchange” (9), which seems to establish the term ‘commodity’ as a sub-category of ‘thing’ and as one with a specified purpose. What other types of sub-categories of things exist today with a comparably defined purpose? Is this focus on the economic nature of things to constraining? Without the spin of politics and the whirl of economics, are things still alive? Does the social emphasis that Appadurai places on things preclude the possibility that things may have private lives too? Compare this to the things mentioned in Henare et al. or the definitions provided by Brown.

    How is thing theory related to structural and literary approaches to materialism? Brown says that history is the currency that things trade in (13). This then implicates historiography and the question: How do we record things? We do this through language/words which posit theories and ideas, which are then turned back into words. Language influences thought and things. Brown cites the surrealists as battling the idea that words and things are deadly rivals. And Olsen points out the differences between things and text: “that material culture is in the world and plays a fundamentally different constitutive role for our being in this world than texts and language. Things do far more than just speak and express meanings.” (90) How might we go about negotiating the apparent necessity of language/text?

    Appadurai also writes in his intro, “Let us approach commodities as things in a certain situation, a situation that can characterize many different kinds of thing, at different points in their social lives. This means looking at the commodity potential of all things rather than searching fruitlessly for the magic distinction between commodities and other sorts of things” (13). So all commodities are things, and every thing has the possibility to become a
    Commodity; but in thinking of our modern Western capitalist consumption practices, can you think of any thing that could be considered an exception to Appadurai’s statement?

    Brown asks “Why do we ask what things mean for different societies instead of what hold do things have on people in different societies?” Henare et al. propose a new methodology of things that seeks to supplant an emphasis on worldviews with that of separate worlds. Are these compatible?

    Brown brings up new media as something that elicits a dialectical play between distance and proximity, finding new way to mediates relations between people and things. (16) How does today’s age of digitization, trans-cultural interactions, and virtual worlds affect the “hold” that things have on us? How does it change our experiences of distance and proximity?

    Olsen points out that we delegate more and more actions to things and therefore they gain ever greater agency in our culture. Is this use of agency comparable to that utilized by Henare et al? Can an object truly have agency? Be an actor? In what ways and with what constraints?

    Olsen challenges us to try to think of our day-to-day practices without things. He points to the networks of material agents that prescribe out actions, memories, and knowledge. But on the other side of the coin (one which the thing theorists seems to place face down) there are things that prohibit and restrict our actions and thoughts. Are morality and ethics necessarily implicated in the debate over things when the thing’s agency can both enable and restrict? …

    The concepts of phenomenology, ontology, and epistemology play a large part in the readings. How are things both illuminated by and how do they affect these concepts? Is there an agreement on this among the readings or are their portrayals different?

    Henare et al call our attention to issues of representation. ‘Different worlds’ reside in things that are sometimes ‘a-visible’ and cannot be visually apprehended. They collapse the distinction between concepts and things (appearance and reality) with the hope of eliciting a new mode of disclosure. “The question then arises of how the things encountered in the course of ethnographic work become apparent.” (14) We are interested in hearing the class’s thoughts on this because we did not perceive a clear answer from these authors.

    January 27, 2009 8:05 PM

    elizabeth said…

    Several of these readings focus on the physicality of things, discussing how we encounter things by virtue of their (and our) tangible, material presence in space. Things are portrayed as the rough surfaces of the world that we scrape up against and therefore cannot ignore (consider Olsen’s explicit linkage of his material ‘artefact’ and Durkheim’s social fact, the latter defined as something that resists the individual will). But I’m also interested in what they have to say (or not) about the temporality of things–Appadurai refers frequently to the trajectories of things, or things-in-motion, understandings that imply movement through time (whether categorized as change or continuity) as well as through space. When Brown writes about how objects assert themselves as things: “you cut your finger on a sheet of paper, you trip over some toy” (p. 3)—he’s focusing on the interruptive nature of things, pointing out that the human encounter with things is not just a physical collision, but a moment, which stands out against the background of all those times during which those objects were not bringing themselves to our attention, not acting as things. Appadurai and some of the authors in his collection speak of things as objects possessing life histories (or cultural biographies, or social histories). How do these accounts consider the transience and/or endurance of things? (an icicle might be one kind of thing before it melts and then another kind of thing afterwards, in terms of the interactions it offers, so what do we make of the transformation of things over time?) Brown, emphasizing the perseverance of some things, writes that “history is exactly the currency things trade in,” (p. 13), and suggests that, perhaps by virtue of this steeping-in-history, anachronism can confer thingness upon what had previously been “tired” objects. Discussing Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture “Typewriter Eraser”, he writes that “the abandoned object attains a new stature precisely because it has no life outside the boundary of art…[it is] sustained outside the irreversibility of technological history” and thus “becomes something else”—- a thing? (p. 15). Incidentally, while first reading this, I vaguely resolved to do a google image search for the sculpture—-but then I turned the page and saw its photo, and realized that I’ve not only seen it, but walked around it and taken photos of it. Not knowing its name, and like the child in Brown’s account, having never seen the innards of a typewriter, I interpreted it as something else entirely–a sort of wheel torn off some fast-moving vehicle.

    Also, since Gina mentioned astronomy, here’s a story that was hovering in the back of my mind while reading this week’s selections (you may have seen it in the news this week)—some particle physicists apparently now suggest that “we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram”:

    so much for the solid 3-D materiality of things?

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